Brasilia – Like Milton Keynes or Canberra But Worse

Aside from travel to travel’s sake, football, food and music, a very fine reason to visit Brazil is architecture and specifically the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer. So, while we were there we thought, “Let’s go to Brasilia”. Oh dear.

Brasilia is a dream of unity dreamt in the 1950s before the country was tortured by a right-wing military coup. The dream was to unify the poor, agricultural North with the wealthier, urban South as part of the hugely ambitious “fifty years of prosperity in five” plan proposed by President of Brazil from 1956 to 1961, Juscelino Kubitschek aka JK.

The other dreamers were young architect, Oscar Niemeyer, and city designer, Lúcio Costa (also a mention to Roberto Burle Marx, the landscape designer who seems to have fought a lonely battle).

Like Canberra in Australia, it is a planned capital city, and like Canberra it’s not made for the people. It’s meant for politicians and those who service them. It has a capital ‘F’ vision of the ‘Future’ from in 1956, a car city, a car city future. It’s hell to walk around.  

The city is designed to be seen as the shape of an aeroplane from above. It is sectioned as you might imagine some distinctly unimaginative but simultaneously very creepy science fiction novel (again from 1956) might describe. 

The residential areas out on the wings; embassies up with the pilot, and the hotels, government ministry and business sections in various discrete locations along the body or the “Eixo Monumental”. There are, of course, other ‘residential’ areas towards the President and Vice President’s houses beyond the artificial lake and golf club (only used by the English, US and Japanese embassy staff we’re informed by our cynical but highly informed guide.)

We stayed in the South Hotel Section (or the North, I can’t recall, it’s all a smear of hotel after hotel after hotel with no decent places to eat). Before appearing to blame Oscar Niemeyer for this apparent humanity-hating, Sci-Fi designer wet-dream.

Imagine what rush hours are like in the morning and evening when all the residential areas empty or fill as people leave or go to work from the residential areas to the various commercial sectors. 

Although Niemeyer designed many of the buildings in Brasilia (hell, in Brazil,. the man was nothing if not prolific); and many of them function at a very human level and size – it was Lúcio Costa who designed the city’s layout. 

Certainly Niemeyer was a Costa intern who benefited from his boss’s position and influence, but the monumentality of Brasilia’s ambition and inhumanity sits firmly on the shoulders of Costa – with a nod to that master of ‘fuck you humans this architect knows who you should live, and it’s beautiful so there’, Le Corbusier.

Niemeyer’s buildings (see the pix) are, for the most part, still exciting to look at, enter and explore. Sadly, with the exceptions of the President’s and Vice President’s Houses, and the Army HQ, they also seem largely unloved and left to fend for themselves by a city council who seem to me to take them for granted.

But there’s more to Brazilian architecture than Brasilia. We also visited Art Deco and urban monster Belo Horizonte, most enjoyable and more to be written about that in a forthcoming post. Like any country I’ve visited that was not directly structurally damaged during WWII – the USA, Australia, for example, Belo’s pre-war 20th century architecture is sometimes elegant but often lived in, functional, human and good to be around.